The Yin and Yang of Amsterdam

coffee house

Over the years I have found Amsterdam a symbol of the counter culture, something I am completely fond of, but also a symbol of a people living side by side. We stroll the canal lit streets arching their way, marking our route, creating a road map easy to follow, where red blends with white lights. So what if a house of prostitution and its ladies sit beside a quaint European style hotel that houses families of tourists. So what if, while searching high and low for an aroma of a strong cup of joe, I sniff out, instead, a strong blend of weed. Coffee is not what it is in the states, including the Starbucks brand, and doesn’t seem to have an interest in ever being that kind of coffee.

How would I have toured this city 30 years ago? Here I am at red light district51, turning my nose up at the strong stench that clouds the neon sign falsely bellowing Coffee House. I board the canal bus and float over rivers and waterways, getting on and off at whim, following the river through architectural renderings that lean forward, backward, side to side, even on a slant, but always stand. Flower stalls, bridges, rivers, boats and canals bear the imprint of Hans Christian Anderson and for a moment, I wish it was winter, with my skates slung over my shoulder, skating rather than floating.

van gogh museumIt is summer and flowers congregate in buckets on corners as bright as the sunflowers blooming in Van Gogh’s renderings that hang in his own museum. My husband and I visit the museum at 8 p.m. on a Friday night and couldn’t be more surprised at the bar scene of amateur art critics sipping wine, lounging on lobby leather sofas summoning up energy to revisit a longtime favorite. Since it is my first visit, I summon a pathos for the troubled, tormented sad boy of Dutch fame, finding his life story a depressing tale of a simple painter who so longed to be loved by the public, and here we are, so loving him.

There is a traffic problem in Amsterdam, through no fault of the drivers — it is their bikes which roam unleashed over sidewalks, trabike bandils, curbs and bridges— left with little room to ride. They soar through crossroads, dodging one another politely, no brakes, no screeching, no curse words, just tiny little bells, and in the case of one unbelled bike, a lyrical “toot toot” as harbinger of its passing. We dodge, and dart and deem ourselves lucky, avoiding catastrophe. Women straddle their bikes in skirts and high heels, making for an unlikely but very sexy image as they stream by. Mothers cart up to three children aboard their bikes, confidently forging onward, to the grocery story, doctor’s office, day care. It is all quite sensible, and priceless, but leave your credit cards at home; Amsterdam doesn’t accept them.

Julia Gillern loves to travel in addition to shaping minds for future service to America.

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